About Child’s Play

What Do We Mean by Child’s Play?

“Within the dynamic processes of play and meaning, children demonstrate their power as agents in their own learning.” (Fromberg, 2007 pg. 5)

Two two-year olds dig in the sand, carefully filling each cup of a muffin tin, and patting down the contents with the flat side of their shovels. Gently setting the tin on the ledge of the sand box, one gathers redwood mulch chips and carefully sprinkles the top. Meanwhile the other collects a handful of small twigs and straw and gentle pokes them into each cup. One picks up the concoction and together they carefully weave their way through the other children in the yard towards the teacher, singing “Happy Birthday” to the best of their memories. The whole episode takes about twenty minutes. In that time these children have explored the sensory enriching textures of sand, mulch, and straw, worked together with concepts of volume, exercised balance, used hand-eye coordination, played with sounds and the phonemic awareness necessary for later literacy, showed persistence, and shared their own self-motivated joy with each other and their teacher, enacting a beloved socio-dramatic moment that displays their emotional and social security. This is child’s play.

Child’s play, a clichéd phrase meaning a simplistic act, could not be father from the truth of children’s play. Child’s play, in action, is far more complex, involving all the domains of learning: cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. A child’s inborn curiosity drives them to explore and discover the world around them, making play the most valuable way children learn.

What is Play?

Play is typically distinguished from other behaviors by:

  • Involving active engagement: Is the child absorbed by what they are doing?
  • Paying attention to means rather than ends: Is the focus on the process, not the product?
  • Freedom from external rules: Are the children creating the rules of the play?
  • Involving non-literal behavior: Does it often involve an element of make-believe?
    (Monighan-Nouret, P., Scales, B., Van Hoorn, J., 1987 pg. 15)

What do children learn from play?

“Play is self-motivated practice in meaning making; its themes are repeated over and over until the child is satisfied that she’s got this figured out. In the process, she is acquiring learning strategies, knowledge, and skills.” (Jones 1992, pg. 10)

Young children learn best by doing. When a child’s whole being —hands, heart, and head— are involved in their activities they are better able to absorb what they are learning and make meaning for themselves. Freed from adult dictation, direct instruction, or overt moralizing— children choose what they need to learn in the moment. Many common goals of early education are impacted through play, which includes socio-dramatic, or pretend play, construction activities, art, music, movement, sand and water play, discovery and exploration, and nature play. (Dodge, Colker, Heroman 2002). The goals include:

Social & Emotional Development

  • Development of a sense of self: When a child’s own motivating interests and efforts are supported and respected, a healthy self-identity blossoms.
  • Responsibility for one’s self & others: Through play children have the opportunity to work collaboratively in groups or individually and create projects that often require necessary social skills, including negotiation, turn-taking, rule-making, planning, design, and enactment.
  • Practicing Prosocial Behaviors: Play allows imagination and creativity to flourish, especially within the framework of socio-dramatic play, where children can explore and act out different emotions through dolls, puppets, story-telling, or plays, allowing them to learn to effectively communicate with their peers and adults. Thorough play children also develop persistence, empathy, and self-control.

Physical Development

  • Gross motor skills: This is often the most visible aspect of children’s play, where they gain mastery over the large muscle groups of the body and where they learn to control and deliberate their movements. Movement with music play is a grand way to build gross motor skills.
  • Fine Motor Skills: The development of the fine muscles of the body, necessary for hand-eye coordination and the use of small tools. Play offers endless opportunities for practice.
  • Sensory development: Children are sensual creatures, and play allows them to connect with the multitude of textures, smells, sights, and sounds in the world, especially through outdoor and natural play.

Cognitive Development

  • Generalized Skills: Through play, children experience problem solving, develop symbolic thought, begin to strategize, and develop creative thinking and imagination.
  • Language and Literacy: Children’s freedom to play with words and sounds in a natural, relevant, and contextualized way allows them to develop the confidence and early skill mastery that leads to literacy, and more importantly, a love of learning. Story telling and dictation leads to narrative structure understanding. Singing and word plays create phonemic awareness and concepts of rhyme and rhythm.
  • Logical & Mathematical: Through blocks, construction, climbing, puzzles, experimental cooking, water play, and use of manipulatives, children learn classification, relational concepts, conservation, number symbolism, order and many other cognitive skills.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; other vital areas can be included, such as science, art, and discovery of the world. A child with access to a natural environment—one with trees, dirt, plants, rocks, sand, and water—has access to all she needs to become a budding scientist. Watching water flow and create pressure a child experiments with gravity and dams made of sand, waiting until the sand dissolves under the flow, this is science in action. The cycles of our natural world: day, year, life, all make for fascinating observation material. The spinning of a spider’s web, a magnifying glass, and time are all some children need to spend the better part of a morning completely lost in their own sense of wonder and curiosity. Given quality playthings made of many materials and primarily open-ended in their actions, which include far more than toys, children can create meaning for themselves and begin to understand the complexities of their lives. Parents, educators, and society at large need to give them the respect, space, understanding, and most importantly time, in which to do it. Child’s play needs a new definition: doing something complicated, satisfying, creative, and wonderful.

Works Cited:
Dodge D.T., Colker, L.J., Heroman, C. (2002). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool (4th ed.). Washington D.C.: Teaching Strategies.

Fromberg, D. (2007, April). Play’s Pathways to Meaning: A Dynamic Theory of Play. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL.

Jones, E., Reynolds, G., (1992). The Play’s the Thing: Teacher’s Roles in Children’s Play. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Monighan-Nouret, P., Scales, B., Van Hoorn, J. (1987). Looking at Children’s Play: A Bridge Between Theory and Practice. New York: Teacher’s College Press.